Mary and I had the opportunity to attend a relatively fancy dinner party the other night. To the guy who views a turkey sandwich and a Diet Coke as the perfect meal, dinner parties always cause a bit of anxiety for me. Unlike “Miss Vivian” (Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman; millennials, google it), I did not have a “Mr. Thompson” (Hector Elizondo) to show me the proper fork to use, the proper way to fold my napkin, and the other appropriate behaviors of high society. I had to learn through trial and error.
As I worked my way through the evening, I found myself stuck in an interminable conversation about this woman’s “precious labradoodles.” Within minutes, all I could hear was the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher (Whah Whah Whah Whah). Thinking back to my trial and error from previous dinner parties, I pasted a smile on my face, nodded with enthusiasm, switched to sympathetic horror when I sensed a switch by her, and feverishly gave Mary the signal to come and rescue me. But, since Mary was telling a group of people all about our granddaughter Penelope’s latest accomplishments — all of whom also had pasted smiles on their faces and were nodding with enthusiasm — I was stuck. I had to manage the situation on my own.
At that moment, I had an epiphany: “managing” a dinner party is a lot like managing a business or career successfully. Here’s how:
Be on time.
We have all hosted events when, at the scheduled start time, no one has arrived. I dare any of you to tell me that you did not think, even for a moment, “what if nobody comes?” The same way hosts like to know that their guests want to be there, businesses like to know that employees want to be there, in the office and pushing towards the bottom line. Executives like to know that their managers want to be there, leading their teams forward. The easiest way to show them? Actually be there. On time.
Bring a hostess gift.
It is always appropriate to bring a small gift to the hostess of the dinner party. It shows your appreciation for the efforts they put into arranging everything. It’s no secret that employers like small gifts too. What are you adding to their “party?” What is your “gift”? Do you bring a small box of extra effort? Or, maybe, you bring a little package of great team building. Some people like to bring gifts of specific expertise. One thing is for sure, the more unique the gift, the more appreciative the hostess will be and the more likely you are to be invited back.
Mind the dress code.
If the invitation says “black tie,” don’t wear your golf togs. If the invitation says “business casual,” avoid jeans and flip-flops. If you don’t want to wear the required clothes, then don’t accept the invitation. Find a dinner party with a beach theme instead. Equity Risk hosted business casual dress codes with a “buttoned down” vibe. Those looking for a looser dress code with an “anything goes” theme, should not join us, but join the tech start-up next door instead. Know the culture of the business you are joining. If it does not fit your style, don’t accept the invitation.
Despite the labradoodle horror story, I have met countless interesting people at dinner parties. Their unique experiences have expanded my horizons, challenged my preconceived notions, raised my hackles, and had me ROFL and LMFAO. You can get the same results in business, but you can’t just expect the interesting people in your organization to find you. You have to seek them. Yes, they will have a crowd around them. Yes, they will be “holding court.” Yes, it will be uncomfortable. And, yes, you will be better off because of it.
Eat what you are served.
I am the most finicky eater. I live in fear of dinner parties serving dishes with mushrooms (yuck), brussel sprouts (double yuck), sushi (expletive deleted) and a whole manner of other foods on the Michael Marcon Tweets “No Fly List.” And yet, I have survived every dinner party I have attended without a trip to the emergency room (a pre-dinner party stop at In-N-Out Burger works wonders, by the way). Just like the recent wedding I attended when the menu highlighted the local southern delicacies (you guessed it, I am not a fan of collard greens), I have also learned that when working with others, you cannot always control the menu. Successful professionals learn how to eat what they are served, manage around the dishes they do not like, and not end up hungry.
Don’t overstay your welcome.
Almost every dinner party I have ever attended has an invitation with a start time and an end time. Remember: after you leave, the host still has to clean up your mess. Know when it is time to go. If the hostess is in the kitchen and the host is taking out the trash and you do not see anyone else in the room, you have overstayed. Most positions and businesses have a defined time frame – a start and a finish. The difference is that the start/finish time is not printed for you on an invitation. Better to leave a little too early than a little too late. Don’t worry, you won’t be missing anything and you will get a jump on the next dinner party.
Write a “Thank You” note.
First, note the word “write.” It does not say “type.” It does not say “speak.” You write a thank you note to the hostess for a wonderful evening, whether it was wonderful or not. They worked hard, expended time, energy, and money in an effort to provide you with a nice event. Always show your appreciation. Hosts always remember who thanked them.
I wish you much success at your future dinner parties. Follow these few simple guidelines and you will find that you not only survived the dinner party, you enjoyed it. You may even end up hosting a few of your own.
Michael C. Marcon is the founder & CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.